College basketball is headed into the home stretch, with top teams and players looking to build momentum heading into the postseason. Of course, sometimes that momentum turns out to be going in exactly the wrong direction at the worst possible time, but sometimes all the pieces fall into place in the season's final weeks.
One team that has everything going right for it these days is the Saint Louis Billikens. The Atlantic 10 leaders have vaulted into the national polls on the strength of February wins over more-heralded rivals from Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, and they’re gunning for the best March Madness seed in school history.
Read on for more on the Billikens and the rest of the teams and players who are putting it all together, or seeing it all fall apart, at Week 17 of the college hoops schedule.
In a topsy-turvy SEC season, there have been few surprises bigger than the Alabama Crimson Tide.
A pedestrian 8-5 entering conference play, Trevor Releford and his mates have now taken five of their last six to claim sole possession of second place in the conference.
‘Bama stands at 11-4 in SEC action, including wins over Kentucky and Arkansas. It’s also worth noting that the only loss the Tide have suffered since February 9 took three overtimes before LSU finally escaped with a home win.
The longer the season goes on, the happier Grambling State will be for it to end. The nation’s only winless team has fallen to 0-25 with little hope of bouncing back.
Thanks in large measure to the country’s worst offense (49.2 points per game), the Tigers have yet to come closer than 10 points in any of those 25 defeats.
Even with two home games to close the season, it’s hard to like GSU’s chances of avoiding an 0-27 finish.
An unlucky draw in BracketBusters kept the Zips from getting the national attention they so richly deserve.
Even if few saw its home rout of North Dakota State, though, Akron got the job done, just as it has every game since December 18 in winning 18 in a row.
Zips 7-footer Zeke Marshall has had plenty to do with the nation's longest active winning streak. He’s put on eye-popping performances like an 18-point, eight-rebound, nine-block effort on the road at Toledo.
The MAC produced one of last March’s top Cinderellas (the Ohio Bobcats), and Akron has every chance of repeating that performance this season.
An 8-4 showing in nonconference play and some surprising numbers from Southern Miss transfer D.J. Newbill gave Penn State hope for surviving in the Big Ten even without injured star Tim Frazier.
It was a mirage.
The Nittany Lions are the only team in any Power Six conference without a win in league play, having dropped all 14 of their Big Ten games.
Yes, the Big Ten is the toughest conference in the country, but even Nebraska and Northwestern (the next two teams up from the cellar) have managed four league wins apiece for the year.
The surprise star of Gonzaga’s world-beating offense, Kelly Olynyk has been even more impressive than usual in recent contests. In his last two games, he’s made a good run at matching his 17.7 point-per-game average despite playing a total of just 38 minutes.
Given a full game’s worth of playing time, Olynyk is even scarier. He demolished San Francisco with 26 points on 13-of-17 shooting, and against Loyola Marymount he missed only one shot (7-of-8 from the field, 6-of-6 from the charity stripe) in a 20-point outing.
After an enviable nonconference showing with wins over Oral Roberts and Davidson, unheralded Charlotte jumped out to a 5-2 start in Atlantic 10 action.
Then the roof fell in.
Four losses in their last five games have dropped the 49ers to .500 in conference and torpedoed their hopes of an at-large bid.
The worst part of all this for Charlotte is that its lone win in that stretch came against nationally ranked Butler, the toughest opponent it’s beaten all season.
Slowly but surely, the New Mexico Lobos have climbed the national polls to a No. 14 ranking. The heart of Steve Alford’s MWC-leading squad is junior PG Kendall Williams, whose contributions only start with his career-best 4.6 assists per game.
As well as Williams has done as a passer in conference play, he’s making even more noise in other areas lately.
He racked up six boards and four steals in a home rout of Air Force, and on Saturday he eviscerated Colorado State (in Fort Collins) for a career-high 46 points on 10-of-13 three-point shooting.
Baylor has one of the most talent-rich rosters in the country, but you’d never know it from the Bears’ recent performance. Since January 30, Scott Drew’s squad has gone 2-6, with its only wins coming against sub-.500 Texas Tech and West Virginia teams.
Pierre Jackson and company have posted an ugly 7-7 mark in Big 12 action, but the numbers are even worse than they look. Only one of those wins (at home against Oklahoma State) came against a contending team.
Apparently, the “real” Baylor looks a lot more like the squad that lost at home to the College of Charleston rather than the one that went into Rupp Arena and shocked Kentucky.
Back from the depths after a miserable three-game slide, Kansas has ripped off five consecutive wins against some of the toughest competition the Big 12 has to offer.
Not that it’s been a cakewalk for the Jayhawks: The five wins have required a total of three overtime periods.
With a blowout home win over Kansas State to start the string, Jeff Withey and company completed a head-to-head sweep of their biggest rival.
Add in a double-OT thriller over Oklahoma State, and KU has earned almost as many wins over ranked teams in February as it had for the entire rest of the season.
Formerly ranked Creighton has fallen to 5-6 since January 19, and superstar Doug McDermott has seen his own performance tumble right along with his team’s.
The season-long Player of the Year candidate has turned in most of his worst scoring nights of 2012-13 during the Blue Jays’ slump.
With no improvement to McDermott’s largely invisible defensive performance, games like his eight-point effort in a loss at Indiana State really stick out.
Even his vaunted efficiency has taken a hit: The usually ultra-accurate McDermott shot a mere 7-of-18 in accumulating his 22 points in a BracketBusters loss at St. Mary’s.
Former dark horse Otto Porter Jr. has broken from the pack to join the front-runners in the national Player of the Year race.
The Georgetown sophomore’s scoring and rebounding numbers have gotten more and more impressive as the season’s worn on, but it’s his clutch game that’s really opening eyes.
On the road at then-No. 8 Syracuse on Saturday, Porter scored a career-high 33 points in a game in which all of the rest of the Hoyas totaled 24.
The 6’8” forward’s leadership has been vital to the winning streak that has Georgetown atop the Big East standings (though performances such as a 19-point, 14-board double-double at Rutgers haven’t hurt, either).
Michigan State’s first two-game losing streak of the season has been the low point of a lousy month for Spartans star Keith Appling.
The fleet-footed point guard has managed a grand total of 13 assists for all of February, and his performance got even worse in the back-to-back defeats last week.
In losing to Indiana at home and Ohio State on the road, Appling totaled just nine points on wretched 2-of-14 shooting from the field (including 0-of-6 from long range). Those nine points barely outstripped the seven turnovers he combined for over the two games.
The nine-game winning streak that’s carried Saint Louis into first place in the Atlantic 10 is impressive enough for its own sake. What really sets the Billikens apart, though, is the quality of their wins in that stretch.
Of the nine victories, two came in a season sweep of No. 20 Butler, while a third took down then-No. 24 Virginia Commonwealth.
Saint Louis is now 4-1 against ranked opponents on the year, ranked No. 18 and alone at the top of the deepest mid-major conference in the country.
In late January, Syracuse was 18-1 and bidding to run away with the Big East. Then Villanova stunned the Orange in Philly, and Jim Boeheim’s team has yet to recover its swagger.
Starting with that upset by the ‘Cats, Syracuse is 4-5, including recent back-to-back losses against Georgetown (at the Carrier Dome) and Marquette.
Michael Carter-Williams’ eye-opening numbers have dropped off, too, and his team has fallen into a fourth-place tie in the conference. It doesn't get any easier for the Orange, either, with No. 10 Louisville and No. 7 Georgetown (in D.C.) still on the schedule.
Knocked from the national polls altogether in mid-January, Georgetown has come roaring back. The Hoyas have won nine in a row to capture sole possession of first place in the Big East, not to mention the No. 7 ranking in the country.
The crowning achievement so far for John Thompson III’s boys is a road win at Syracuse, making them the first team to beat the Orange at the Carrier Dome since the 2010-11 Hoyas pulled off the same feat.
Three other ranked teams have fallen to Georgetown on its current run, and it wouldn’t be a shock if it added a fourth Top 25 victim (Syracuse for a second time) in the regular-season finale.
Cincinnati played brilliantly in the early part of the season thanks to one of the nation’s best backcourts: SG Sean Kilpatrick and PG Cashmere Wright.
Unfortunately, that duo is all but down to a single player thanks to Wright’s awful performance in recent weeks.
The 6’0” senior has five single-digit scoring nights in his last nine games, a stretch in which the Bearcats have limped to a 3-6 record.
Lowlights include a five-point, zero-assist game against Syracuse, five points and two assists against Pitt and zero points (with one assist) against Notre Dame.
You can probably guess what Cincy’s record looks like over those three games.